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A year after declaring state of emergency, 11 Manitoba First Nations start self-governance plans

March 29, 2024

‘We are being shunned by the government,’ Keewatin Tribal Council grand chief says

A man wearing a headdress sits behind a table in front of a microphone.
Keewatin Tribal Council Grand Chief Walter Wastesicoot said other levels of government have done little to help the council’s 11 Manitoba First Nations after they declared a regional state of emergency last March.(CBC

CBC Indigenous: The Keewatin Tribal Council has begun plans to move toward self-governance — one year after declaring a regional state of emergency over what the tribal council’s grand chief called “system-wide failures” in public safety, health and infrastructure.

The council, which represents 11 First Nations across northern Manitoba, has decided to pursue self-determination after meeting in Winnipeg over the last three days, Grand Chief Walter Wastesicoot said at a news conference in Winnipeg on Thursday.

“Part of that is taking control and access over the lands and territories that we have held … since time in memorial,” said Wastesicoot.

“We don’t want to recognize Manitoba’s boundaries, Canada’s boundaries anymore.”

The 11 First Nations are “now engaged in creating a government that will act in the best interests of our people,” Wastesicoot said.

The 11 bands declared the state of emergency in March 2023 and urged governments to intervene.

But Wastesicoot said governments have done little in the past year to help the communities, which continue to struggle with opioid epidemics, underfunding of health care and inadequate infrastructure.

“We are being shunned by the government that is supposed to be fiscally responsible for our people,” he said.

“The democracy that we live in is killing our people day in and day out — legislated negligence.”

The chief said the Keewatin Tribal Council’s First Nations, all of which are remote and have a combined population of 20,000 people, are plagued by a “discriminatory system” fostered by the Indian Act and Canada’s colonial history. 

The tribal council includes Shamattawa First Nation and God’s Lake First Nation, which declared their own states of emergency before the council declared a regional one last year.

“Every week, we are forced to bury our people who have died due to suicide, violence, inadequate medical services, drug overdose, complications from diabetes and other entirely preventable circumstances,” he said.

The bands are also concerned about the provincial and federal governments making deals with mineral companies without getting consent from the First Nations.

Wastesicoot said he wants the federal government to meet with the tribal council to talk about solutions.

Last year, a First Nation in Saskatchewan, Whitecap Dakota, signed its own self-government agreement with Canada.

That made the First Nation the first in Saskatchewan to sign such an agreement, which allows it to move away from the Indian Act and have different law-making powers — though they must work in tandem with provincial and federal laws.

Five First Nations in Ontario have also taken steps toward self-governance, after they signed an agreement that gives them power to make their own decisions on leadership, citizenship, language and culture and government operations.